Mark Wahlberg and an eggplant teach me to enjoy action flicks

I watched “Shooter” last night while I made eggplant curry. The curry turned out really well–turns out the missing ingredient last time I made it was coconut milk– but the really interesting part of the evening was the experience I had watching the movie. By most accounts, “Shooter” was a pretty bad movie, or at least pretty mediocre, but I really enjoyed it. And I think the reason was, I wasn’t really paying attention.

I’m not trying to rip on the movie. I’ve always believed that the so-called “mindless action flick” was a perfectly defensible art form. It’s just like I always appreciated the music of folks like Justin Timberlake and the Black Eyed Peas. I think they’re geniuses: they are legitimately some of the best in the world at crafting catchy beats, hooks, and melodies. You just can’t go to them expecting depth and introspection. That would be foolish. You go to them when you need to be emotionally manipulated by music on a deep level. And I’m not so snobby as to think there’s anything wrong with that on any level. Sometimes you need to be tricked into feeling happy, sad, hopeful, whatever. We do this all the time by turning to friends, starting leading conversations, et cetera. So there’s no reason to feel bad doing it with music.

For some reason, though, I’ve always had trouble letting movies do this to me.

Action films in particular get on my nerves when they try to provoke an emotional response. They always try really hard to get me to have a gut-level, testosterone laced level of support for the hero, and they often try to get me to join in on the his righteous anger against whatever evildoers he’s battling, too. And for some reason, even though I know the trick to enjoying such movies is not to expect any deep revelations about the state of humanity, and not to expect any magical, arts camera work, et cetera, I always manage to get angry at the shallowness of the movie.

This has made a lot of my friends angry to no end. So many of them got a huge rush out of “Quantum of Solace,” but I was busy being mad that it didn’t live up to the emotional complexity of “Casino Royale.” A good number of them managed to get a kick out of the fight sequences in “G.I. Joe,” whereas I couldn’t get over the fact that it contains some of the most unrealistic science, most incoherent plot “twists,” and most densely-packed clichés of all time.

Well now I’ve learned the trick, courtesy of Mark Wahlberg.

I’m positive that if I had been watching “Shooter” in a movie theater, I wold have hated it just as much as all the other brainless action flicks I’ve seen in my life (well, not more than “G.I. Joe.” I really think that is one of the worst movies ever made). But somehow, the eggplant curry recipe required just enough of my attention, at sufficiently random and disparate intervals, that my brain actually could not try to follow anything but the shallowest of plot arcs and the simplest of emotional journeys. All I had time to think were things like “Gee, that was totally awesome how he took out that entire sniper round with one shot. Dang, how cool is he? Of course, I can’t remember why he’s shooting at the helicopter. And I mean the poor pilot can’t have known he was… ooh! shoot, I’ve got to take the eggplant out of the oven before it turns to absolute mush. I’m sure the guy in the copter deserved it.”

It turns out this is the ideal way for me to watch an action flick that is supposed to be “good” in the sense of providing pulse-pounding thrills and a purified sense of satisfaction when the bad guy gets shot in the head by a sniper. I know, a lot of other people have just learned how to temporarily turn “off” their inner snob and enjoy a movie like this. But while I claim to be able to do this with music, I’ve never been able to do it with a movie. Until now. Thanks, Mark Wahlberg, and thanks eggplant curry. I am not kidding, I sincerely, deeply enjoyed this movie, in a way I certainly would not have otherwise.

Before I go, two notes. First, this movie is the one in which Mark Wahlberg Is Wearing A Hat. I’ve always wondered where the clip came from. And if you don’t know the reference I am making, you should really follow the link and watch the video. Its one of my favorite spoof videos ever.

Secondly, if you’re one of those unfortunate few who, like me, suffers from an inability to suspend your emotional disbelief and physical intuition when watching an action movie, I recommend both “Taken” with Liam Neeson and all three of the “Bourne” movies with Matt Damon (especially the second one). These are all movies that have gotten attention for their epically good fight scenes and chase sequences, and those reputations are enormously well deserved. But they are enjoyable even if you usually demand more than just a good shoot-em-up out of your movies*.

In the case of “Taken,” the reason this works is because the action is so incredibly, perfectly good that it overwhelmed my desire to say “now wait a minute…” at every turn, and allowed me to experience it as the raw adrenaline rush it was meant to be. It is “action movie” distilled into it’s purest form. It is certain to get you excited. In the case of the Bourne movies, the reason is that, well, somehow they manage to superimpose a morality drama and a journey of self-discovery onto a totally awesome movie about spies that fight with Krav Maga. In both cases, I suspect you’ll leave feeling intellectually satisfied as well as flushed with adrenaline and looking to pick a fight with the nearest badguy.

*note: “Shoot-’em-up” was awesome too, but for reasons far too complicated to get into here.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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